Queerness Meets Disability in Shortbus

Curator's Note

In the contemporary push toward mainstream acceptance, many gay men and lesbians insist that they have nothing in common with disabled people.  Homosexuality, as a disorder, was purged from the DSM over thirty years ago – what’s to be gained by dwelling on a painful and pathologizing past? 

One thing I like about John Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus is its refusal to join this queer backlash against disability.  “Do you know what a shortbus is?” Justin Bond asks Sofia, “You’ve heard of the big yellow school bus.  Well this is the short one.  It’s a salon for the gifted and challenged.”  Invoking a shared legacy of medical othering, the film urges its sexual misfits to say ‘no’ to normalcy and ‘yes’ to sex, banding together with their disabled counterparts for an irreverent erotic joyride.  Here the historical linkages between queerness and disability are not a source of shame but rather something to be claimed, celebrated and defiantly flaunted. 

So far so good.  But something troubles me, and that is the near absence of physically disabled bodies in Shortbus’s sexual utopia.  As the camera traverses the spaces of the salon, the bodies that we see are, for the most part, young and fit, often displaying feats of impressive flexibility and athleticism.  Despite its joyful claiming of disability vocabularies and icons, is there a way in which the film still privileges able bodies?          

The few glimpses of physical disability we do get are brief and perplexing.   A man identifying himself as an albino recognizes Jamie from the sitcom that Jamie had starred in as a child.  But the repetition of Jamie’s catch phrase “I’m an albino!” feels more like comic relief than social commentary.  Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman with a heart condition educates Ceth on the importance of “bend[ing] over to let in the new.”  The arguably crip kiss they share, however, remains chaste, with Ceth saving most of his actual “bending over” for the young gay couple he goes home with later that night. 

Finally, we might consider Sofia’s inability to have an orgasm and her eventual rehabilitation (via queer sex) into new state of psychological health and physical wholeness.  From a disability studies perspective, Sophia’s cure narrative seems potentially problematic, as do the fleeting portraits of disability described above, leaving one to wonder who gets to ride the shortbus and who gets left behind.

Comments

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Crip glimpses

Great post, thanks Cynthia. You do a great job of outlining the ways in which compulsory able-bodiedness as a system is often left untroubled by the film. However, there are one or two glimpses of cripqueer possibility in the film and both involve Justin Bond. The first ends up being a bit of comic relief but initially harbors promise. Justin Bond and Sofia are sitting on the sofa in the shortbus observing (in this case voyeurism is not participation) various bodies (normative ones to be sure, as you so carefully note, but recall that there is one fat/thin coupling) engaged in various configurations (race, age, gender, sex) about to fuck. Bond remarks to Sofia that "for a second there I thought that guy didn’t have an arm". Of course, the reference is to vaginal or anal fisting. The second moment carries more promise. It occurs near the end of the film (and you can see it during the clip Karin & I chose) when the orgy ensues. It is so quick that you might just miss it but during the "in the end" sequence Bond licks Tobias the former mayor of New York City’s face. In this one brief moment Ceth’s chaste kiss gets rewritten as cripqueer one perhaps.

MOR.

Cynthia Barounis's picture

Re: Crip Glimpses

Thanks, Michael, for these wonderful observations.  I completely agree with you about that brief moment during the “in the end” sequence in which Justin Bond licks Tobias’s forehead with perverse abandon (a moment that had I hadn’t actually noticed until I watched the clip that you and Karin posted on Monday).  It’s a fantastic flash of cripqueer possibility and it made me wonder if the range of subjects who “get it in the end” might be broader than I had originally suspected.    

I’m a little bit less convinced by the fat/thin coupling that we witness, if only because of the way that the shot is composed.  If I’m remembering correctly, both individuals are shot from the neck down, revealing their bodies but not their faces.  Given how frequently the camera seems to linger on faces throughout the film (often sealing a set of intimate bonds between characters via the exchange of long, wordless looks), these faceless bodies stood out to me as being somehow outside of its erotic fold, objects rather than subjects.  In my less generous moments, I almost read their presence as a kind of superficial “proof” of the film’s commitment to diversity, eccentric furnishings that decorate rather than truly inhabit the space of the salon.  That said, I can see how the case might be made otherwise and am definitely open to other more positive ways of approaching that shot.

Thanks, too, for bringing up the “armless” man that Justin Bond observes.  That line struck me the first time I saw the film, and four years later, I’m still not sure of what to make of it!     

Kristopher L. Cannon's picture

From Sofia to Lady Grey London

 Cynthia,

I really enjoyed your post, as it brings to light a conversation that is necessary for our understanding of Shortbus (as a film and as metaphor).  I particularly like the comment you make at the end about Sophia and her crip’d orgasm "fix"/"cure" because I had considered posting about Shortbus in relation to Mitchell’s newest (short) film: "Lady Grey London."  If you haven’t seen it, take a peek here on Youtube.

While I thought about connecting this short with my discussion about "lack," it simultaneously gestures your comments and concerns.  As troubled as I am about Sofia’s focus being this search for her first orgasm (which I think is only one way in which pleasure needs to be experienced, but remains over-emphasized in many cultures), I wonder how it connects with what we see Lady Grey London.  Maybe you can offer some thoughts.

I am uncertain how we can understand the function of Marion Cotillard in this film: does she signify a "desired object," an "ideal object," or something else? and is this "woman as object" or "fashion as object," etc.?  She is certainly a motivating and/or shocking force for both McKellen and Tovey. McKellen’s final moments in the film are surprising, maybe troubling, in that I am not certain how her impact is significant enough to incite his reaction to stand (if in fact he cannot stand, as it seems earlier on). Is it because she shows him sympathy, by offering sad puppy dog eyes while lifting up and looking at his prosthetic legs?  I wonder if this merely boils down to incredible cliche: all a "crip," or "homo," or "crip-homo" needs is the "right woman." 

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Hedwig's Stance

The idea of making something ‘stand’  is present in Hedwig as well. She initially presents herself as the “internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you” – and we all know what type of limb Hedwig is missing. Interestingly, like McKellen she later learns to stand to the degree that she (apparently) even grows herself a pair of balls (See Kris’ response to my question in ‘Hedwig leaves her stain on the Shortbus’). In the stage version of Hedwig we see the character literally tearing herself to pieces, falling to the floor, and finally rising out of the ashes. It could certainly be read as a type of erectile phoenix, evoked in order to fill the initial absence.

I think a crip reading of both Hedwig and Shortbus (And possibly Lady Grey London – I haven’t quite made up my mind about that yet) will ultimately be slightly problematic. Both flims claim to direct themselves to the “gifted and challenged” (Shortbus) or “ the misfits and losers” (Hedwig), but both ultimately attempt to transcend this gifted misfitted-ness, or fill the gaping absences. As Cynthia points out, Shortbus definitely produces a discourse of rehabilitation and Hedwig goes from a state of desperate lack to some sense of fulfilment (regardless of whether we want to consider this in terms of completeness or something else). All the gaps are filled. The wounds are healed. The one gaping space that remains untouched is the (castration) wound of NYC itself: Ground Zero.

Cynthia, I find your comment on the voyeurism of disabled bodies in Shortbus really interesting. Especially Bond’s reference to the missing arm seems to be there to establish Shortbus as a space where ‘anything can happen’ – any types of bodies may appear or disappear. The disabled body becomes more of a sign than a subject. I think this is true of the transgendered body in Hedwig too. The moment we start interpreting Hedwig as an actual transgender woman the narrative becomes very problematic (as critics like Jordy Jones have shown). I tend to read Cameron Mitchell’s work in rather more abstract terms – less as portraits of specific types of bodies and more as processes of embodiment. I’m not sure that a straight-forward emancipatory reading is possible. 

KS

   
Cynthia Barounis's picture

Frankenfurter vs. Lady Grey?

What a fascinating video – thanks, Kris, for bringing it to my attention!  Like Karin, I also see a problematic rehabilitative logic at work here.  As I watched Lady Grey lift and stroke McKellen’s legs, I was actually reminded of the Rocky Horror “Don’t Dream It, Be It” number – specifically, the moment in the number where Dr. Everett Scott removes the blanket from his lap to reveal a fabulously gartered and stockinged leg (stage version viewable here, approx. 2:50 minutes in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87WmaVIj350 ).  But where Dr. Scott remains seated in his wheelchair, flanked by dancers in a kind of cripqueer sensual glory, Ian McKellan “rises” from his wheelchair (and presumably his impotence) into a state of renewed heteromasculine vigor.  The low-brow irreverence of camp seems, in "Lady Grey London," transformed into the reverent and solemn world of high art.  And the non-normative and sexually available object of desire (the corseted transvestite) is recast as a normative and sexually unavailable one (the female movie star in an expensive designer dress).  There may, of course, be much more of a camp aesthetic in this short film than I’m giving it credit for, but I do find the contrast against Rocky Horror striking.

I might also put "Lady Grey London" more directly in dialogue with Shortbus by thinking about asexuality and its associations with disability – both the projection of asexuality onto the disabled body as well as the projection of disability onto members of the asexual community (via the problematic assumption that people who don’t experience sexual desire are simply repressed or psychologically blocked).  I suppose this latter way of looking at asexuality would involve a variation on the cliché that Kris proposed.  Rather than the notion that all any homo/crip needs is the “right woman,” we have instead the idea that all any asexual/crip needs is the right seuxal object or partner(s) to animate their desire.  For Sofia, this comes in the form of the couple from the Sex Not Bombs room; for McKellen, in the form of Lady Grey.  Though these objects/partners are radically different from one another, they do seem to share the function of "curing" their subjects by offering them a way of transitioning from an asexual/crip state into sexual/able-bodied one.  So maybe it’s not so much compulsory heterosexualiy as compulsory sexuality that’s at work here?

Extending the discussion about Severin that began on Kris’s post, I wonder what it would mean to conceptualize Severin’s non-participation in the ending sequence as resistance to a compulsory system.  Can we read Severin’s decision to stay out of the orgy as an asexual (or even feminst) gesture?   A reminder that empowered connection to oneself and others can be found not only though the act of saying “yes” to sex but also through the act saying “no”?   

 

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Severin and Lady Grey

Cynthia, great points. The vignette with McKellen’s leg brace reminded me very much of the scene where James Spader removes Rosanna Arquette’s steel prosthesis to fuck her wound in David Cronenberg’s Crash. And that intertextual moment seems to me to harbor far more "cripqueer sensual" potential since Spader’s character can hardly be said to be recuperable for any sort of heteromaculinist or heteronormative logic. 

I think you are right that both Severin and Lady Grey are opting out of what you felicitously call "compulsory sexuality". After all, both actively choose not to have sex and to be alone at the end of the respective films. In this interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrP-ufdjFds) Cameron Mitchell himself makes some interesting distinctions between good sex and bad sex and he specifically mentions Severin’s orgasm with Sofia’s vibrating egg as a sexual encounter which falls into the latter category (since Severin is not even aware that the other person is there). For Mitchell, good sex seems to be always about relationality, about an I and a thou as he says in the interview. But both Severin and Lady Grey seem to luxuriate in the position of saying no to (sexual) relationality. And I’m inclined to agree with Kris that this isn’t at all an occupation of the position of the Edelmanian sinthomosexual since that solitary figure is on the side of death whereas both Severin and Lady Grey seem to be very much on the side of life. So, why can’t good sex be a kind of sex without sex, without an I and a thou? Why can’t it be an opting out of normative (sexual) coupledom in favour of other kinds of connections and participations: with the world, the sky, the emergent landscape (more to come on this in our concluding post for the week)? Why not describe Severin and Lady Grey’s choosing to be alone with Derrida from Athens, Still Remains as "an auto-affective experience of passactivity"?

MOR.

 

Karin Sellberg and Michael O'Rourke's picture

Severin's "Correspondence of Forms"

 I can’t stop thinking about Severin and I think it is significant that she has become the most significant, the most written about, the most talked about, figure of the theme week. I can’t stop pondering her because she is so difficult to get, so difficult to get a hold on. And I’m stuck. Which makes me want to keep asking questions about her, of her. And my failure to fully understand her keeps me going. So I’ll have another (probably unsuccessful) go at this.

Since reading Robert’s commentary on the queer "aesthetics of existence" I’ve been revisiting Leo Bersani and (his writings on) Foucault to try to make sense of Severin. In an early essay "Erotic Assumptions" Bersani writes that "the sexual always involves a turning away from the other". This sounds like a good description of Severin’s stance at the end of (perhaps all the way through Shortbus). But the later Bersani (both with and without Ulysse Dutoit) seems to offer a more promising understanding of Severin’s character and her (non?)solipsistic auto-eroticism. Despite claims that Bersani’s position on the self-shattered subject has shifted from early claims about ego dissolution (taken up from the Laplanchean idea of ebranlement) to a gentler formulation of ego disidentification premised on what he calls "the milder sensual pleasure of discovering our inaccurate self-replications in the world, the aesthetically pleasing correspondences between the world and multiple partial aspects of our subjecthood", I am not so sure that there is a rupture in the arc of his writing. Before coming back to why Bersani sees these inaccurate self-replications as "aesthetically pleasing" I would like to demonstrate the absolute consistency of his thought relating to sexuality and sexual self-shattering (and in turn that this consistency explains Severin’s apparently contradictory sexual character). There are no breaks in Bersani’s formulations of things any more than, I would argue, there is any inconsistency in Severin’s refusal to capitulate to what Cynthia calls "compulsory sexuality" throughout the course of the film, whether she is with others (trust fund boy, Sofia) or alone.

In his work, but this is especially evident in intimacies (co-authored with Adam Phillips) Bersani imagines a non-identitarian sameness, a way of being-with the other, where, as I have already said, we are inaccurately replicated. The lover replicates himself in the other and they both replicate themselves outside but there is no being and no identity in their intimacy-small i intimacy, small b being. The self-shattered subject in this impersonally narcissistic field is non-ipso-phallic, non-inviolable and this is important because, for Bersani, the power of love depends on our loving the lover/other and the external world without mastering it, by finding (or refinding in the Freudian sense) ourselves somehow in it/them.  The mobility of “Persons in Pieces” we see in his later work is a gravitation towards one’s own “form” elsewhere in order to open oneself up to the possibility of a whole new series of relationships to the other, to the world, a “congested connectedness” (“Beauty’s Light”), relationships which are in the first instance “aesthetic”. In the non-suicidal self-immolation Bersani charts an impersonal aesthetic where everything connects within and to the wholeness of being, where the subjects need to project herself on the world is not entirely necessary-“we correspond to the world in ways that don’t necessitate or imply the world’s suppression” (“Psychoanalysis and the Aesthetic Subject”).This “ontological passivity” or “ontological floating”, simply letting the world be, our ceaseless receptivity to the world, depends on a "pure love", where subjectivity is divested at the same time as our claims on the world. Both self and world “lose their customary borders” as Michael Snediker has so eloquently put it.

In an essay on Bersani, Tim Dean has made sense of the ways in which shattering effects don’t always cluster around sexuality but also attach to the aesthetic (and in constitutive ways). Dean stumbles across—and it does give one pause—a remarkable passage in Freud’s (re-finding again) essay on "Infantile Sexuality" where he writes about "the sexually exciting effect of many emotions which are in themselves unpleasurable" but can be traced to an "imaginary world, in a book or in a play". Dean glosses this startling claim by saying that "not only does Freud claim that sexuality may be provoked by objects that are unrecognizable as either oedipally derived or, indeed, erotic in any way: he claims further that it may be provoked by objects—or, more precisely experiences—that are recognizably aesthetic". 

Bersani sees an intimate connection between this idea and the work on aesthetics he has been undertaking with Dutoit and his attempts to describe "the rhythms of the body and that which is foreign to the body". In the closing scenes of Shortbus we see Severin three times (clutching an object I can’t quite identify: is it a cane?). On the first occasion she enthusiastically bangs on the cymbals of one of the drumming musicians. On the second she shrieks joyously in a solipsistic moment of auto-erotic jouissance. On the final occasion she seems to voyeuristically participate in/with the throbbing crowd of bodies which surrounds her solitary seated body. She finds herself inaccurately replicated in the world around her without mastering it and by objects which are not "recognizably erotic" or recognizably sexual. Severin doesn’t have a broken attachment to the world but rather exhibits a striking correspondence between her own psychic rhythms and the objects which are foreign to her (divided or split, as Kris says) subjectivity. This is what Bersani (and Dutoit) mean, I think, by the "correspondence of forms".

MOR.

 

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